Becoming a Law Enforcement Officer: Job Description & Salary Info

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Learn about a law enforcement officer's job description, salary and training requirements. Get the facts about the pros and cons of a law enforcement officer career.
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Pros and Cons of Becoming a Law Enforcement Officer

As a law enforcement officer, you'll be responsible for upholding the law to protect lives and property. Read on to learn the pros and cons of becoming a law enforcement officer to determine if this is the right career for you.

Pros of Becoming a Law Enforcement Officer
Earn a good salary (mean annual salary of about $59,560 as of May 2014)*
Can get a job with just a high school diploma*
High level of job satisfaction**
Benefits packages are usually very good, with eligibility to retire at age 50***
Opportunities to specialize (investigations, alternative patrol, traffic enforcement, bomb squad, canine unit)**

Cons of Becoming a Law Enforcement Officer
The work is often extremely dangerous and stressful*
May have to work irregular hours that include nights, weekends and holidays*
Anticipated job growth is slower than average (just 6% between 2012 and 2022)*
Competitive market for state and federal agency jobs*
Job can include many uneventful hours of paperwork and riding around in a patrol car****
Federal officers often have to travel on short notice*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **International Association of Chiefs of Police, ***California Employment Development Department, ****The Princeton Review.

Career Information

Job Description and Career Options

Careers in law enforcement can be found across several jurisdictions and subject areas, so your job duties will vary depending on what type of work you choose. For example, if you work as a uniformed police officer, your job might include such local law enforcement activities as enforcing local laws, patrolling assigned areas, issuing traffic citations, making arrests and writing reports. State police officers, county sheriffs and railroad police officers perform the same activities but in their own respective jurisdictions. As a fish and game warden, your focus would be on enforcing fishing and boating laws. You could also work for a federal agency, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), where you would enforce drug or other federal laws. Another federal career option is the U.S. Secret Service, where you'd be responsible for protecting the President and other elected public officials.

Being a law enforcement officer isn't easy. You will often face life-threatening and stressful situations, and this career has high rates of job-related injuries and fatalities. In fact, CNN included police officers in its 2011 list of top ten most dangerous jobs in America ( You'll be dealing with criminals, trauma and death, which can be tremendously stressful and emotionally challenging. You'll also probably work shift hours, which includes nights, weekends and holidays. Federal agents often have to travel for their jobs, and they might need to relocate their homes several times over the course of their careers.

Salary Info and Job Prospects

In May 2014, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported an average salary of about $59,560 for police officers. This figure is highly dependent on your geographical location. For example, officers in the San Jose, Sunnyvale and Santa Clara area of California earned an average of $99,700 annually, while those working in nonmetropolitan areas of south Georgia earned only around $31,310. Officers who work in specialized units, such as canine teams and bomb squads, typically earn higher salaries.

For law enforcement officers, the BLS expects a slower-than-average employment growth rate of just 6% between 2012 and 2022. The job market will be competitive, especially for higher paying state and federal government agency positions as well as location. California, Texas, and New York were the top three states with the highest concentration of law enforcement, each employing more than 50,000 officers, or 8% of the workforce.

Training and Education Requirements

For most state and local law enforcement officer jobs, you'll need to have at least a high school diploma or equivalent to get your foot in the door, although some agencies require some college experience. If you prefer to work for a federal agency, you'll most likely need a bachelor's degree and a few years of relevant work experience. Once hired, most agencies will require you to complete their training academy before you can become an officer. The training for police officers can be anywhere from one to six months long, and it usually includes such topics as state laws, civil rights, ethics, traffic control, use of firearms and emergency response. From there, you'll enter into a field-training period that might last about 8 weeks.

Federal agents often study specific disciplines related to their areas; for example, FBI agents can choose to focus on intelligence, counterintelligence, counterterrorism, criminal or cyber activity during their academy. In general, law enforcement officers take continuing education courses throughout their careers to gain additional skills and stay on top of the latest law enforcement methods and technologies.

Top Skills for Law Enforcement Officers

The U.S. Department of Justice's core competencies for law enforcement are listed below to help you better understand the skills and abilities that law enforcement agencies want to see in law enforcement officers. Candidates should:

  • Use good judgment and solves problems
  • Display empathy and compassion
  • Be able to multitask
  • Show courage and takes responsibility
  • Be resourceful and show initiative
  • Demonstrate assertiveness
  • Demonstrate integrity
  • Work well in teams

Real Job Postings for Law Enforcement Officers

According to law enforcement officer job openings posted on and in 2012, employers usually require a high school diploma. Some agencies and departments ask for bachelor's degrees. Employers also look for people over 21 years of age who are physically fit and hold a valid state drivers' license. The following real job advertisements might help you get an idea of what employers were looking for in April 2012:

  • A police department in Virginia looked for an entry-level police officer. The employer required only a high school diploma or equivalent, and no prior experience was necessary.
  • A county sheriff's department in California sought a new deputy sheriff trainee. The department was looking for someone with effective communication skills and the ability to work as part of a team. In addition, the employer was willing to pay a higher salary to any new recruit holding a bachelor's or master's degree.
  • A federal agency advertised for several marine border control job openings, most of which were in Florida. Applicants needed to have a Coast Guard-issued license, a high school degree combined with the appropriate experience or a master's degree to qualify. The employer was also looking for candidates who had skills in law enforcement and navigation techniques and knew how to operate radar systems and various marine vessels.

How to Stand out in the Field

Get a College Degree

Although most non-federal law enforcement jobs require nothing more than a high school diploma, getting a bachelor's or master's degree can help you stand out among the competition. The California Employment Development Department predicts that those with a college education will have the best prospects among an increasingly competitive job market. In addition, the International Association of Chiefs of Police states that having a degree will help you obtain promotions and special assignments.

Learn a Second Language

According to the BLS, demonstrating proficiency in a foreign language will help you get the best opportunities in federal agencies. For example, in April 2012, the Secret Service offered a recruitment bonus to newly hired recruits with bilingual abilities. The Secret Service gives any agent who makes substantial use of their foreign language skills a bonus equivalent to 5% of their basic pay.

Other Careers to Consider

Private Investigator

If the dangers of being a law enforcement officer are a deterrent for you, you might consider becoming a private investigator. Private investigators help individuals and businesses by collecting information through such activities as surveillance, interviews, research and investigations. This information might be used to help solve crimes, find missing persons or verify facts about people's backgrounds. While there might be some dangerous situations in this line of work, you probably won't need to carry a gun.

You'd also probably enjoy a better-than-average employment outlook, since the BLS expects private investigator job opportunities to grow at a rate of 21% between 2010 and 2020. You'd most likely, however, make a smaller salary than you would as a law enforcement officer. In May 2011, the BLS reported that private investigators earned an average salary of about $49,000.

Probation Officer

Another way to get involved with the law process is to work as a probation officer. Instead of putting criminals in jail, you'd be helping them reenter into society after they've served their time. You also might monitor parolees to make sure they don't commit more crimes. The work is still somewhat dangerous, since you'd be working with criminals and possibly visiting high-crime neighborhoods. At a reported average of $52,000 per year, according to the BLS in May 2011, the salary is about the same as that of a law enforcement officer. However, you'll probably need to get a bachelor's degree for this job.


If the adrenaline rush of facing dangerous situations head-on is what you're after, a career as a firefighter might appeal to you. Like law enforcement officers, firefighters often put themselves in risky situations to serve their community. Firefighters perform search and rescues in burning buildings, put out fires and administer basic medical care. The training requirements and job outlook are similar to those of law enforcement officers. However, the average annual pay for a firefighter is only about $48,000, according to May 2011 statistics published by the BLS.

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